Heirloom vegetables bring more than big flavor to the dinner table. Many of these traditional varieties boast a rich history that’s often hinted at in their names. Allow us to share some of our favorite stories of heirloom vegetable names.
Cherokee Purple Tomato
Dark tomatoes with a rich, complex flavor mirror the history of this taste test winner. The story goes that members of the Cherokee nation cultivated this tomato in pre-1890 Tennessee. Over a century later, a seed-saver from Sevierville, Tennessee, sent seeds of this then-unnamed purple tomato to Craig LeHoullier, a tomato-growing chemist in Pennsylvania. The seeds had come from a neighbor whose family had been growing that particular variety for over 100 years, after Cherokee Indians had given his ancestors the seeds. Now called Cherokee Purple, this was one of the first heirloom tomato varieties to be widely marketed to home gardeners — indeed, it helped put heirlooms on the gardening map.
Though it first appeared in seed catalogs in 1860, the Pattypan squash was grown by Native American tribes from Virginia to New England long before that time. The word “squash” itself comes from a Massachusetts Native American word, “askutasquash,” which translates as “eaten raw or uncooked.” The name “Pattypan” comes from kitchens in the French Provençal region, based on its resemblance to a small cake baked in a scalloped pan known as a pâtisson. The oldest known American recipe for preparing Pattypan squash comes from an 1824 copy of The Virginia House-Wife. It recommends boiling the squash before pureeing it.
Romaine (Parris Island Cos) Lettuce
Romaine lettuce is actually the oldest type of lettuce known to modern man. It appears in Egyptian art dating back to 300 B.C. The name “Romaine” hails from the French, who adopted this word as a nod to the Papal Gardens in Rome, in which Romaine ettuce was known to be planted. Romaine is also known as Cos lettuce, referring to the Greek island of Kos, another place in which this leafy green is often grown. The “Parris Island Cos” variety was developed in 1952, in a joint effort by the USDA and Clemson University. Their goal was to create a lettuce that would be slow to bolt and disease-resistant—and would, therefore, thrive in Southern conditions. They succeeded!
Mortgage Lifter Tomato
This hefty tomato has a story that makes a perfect bedtime tale. It was developed by a home gardener, Marshall Cletis Byles of Logan, West Virginia. Known to his friends as “Radiator Charlie,” Byles owned an auto repair shop where he fixed the overheated radiators of the trucks that tried but failed to summit the nearby mountain. In the 1930s, Radiator Charlie decided to help both his and other families get through the Depression by developing a big, meaty tomato that could feed an entire family. He started by crossing four of the biggest tomatoes in his garden, then continued the process over the course of six years, until he produced his signature tomato. He began selling the seedlings for $1 each, and in six years paid off his $6,000 mortgage with the proceeds. Thus, the Mortgage Lifter was born.
Blue Hubbard Squash
A sea captain earns credit for bringing this warty winter squash to the New World. The seeds hail from either South America or the West Indies, depending on whose story you believe. What isn’t in dispute, though, was that the captain delivered the seeds to friends in Marblehead, Massachusetts in 1798. By 1842, seeds had made their way to Mrs. Elizabeth Hubbard, who grew the squash and was captivated by its sweet, string-less golden flesh. She shared seeds with neighbor and local seedsman James J.H. Gregory, who named the squash after her and, in 1909, included it in his seed catalog. The Blue Hubbard became the favored squash for making pumpkin pie in the early 1900s.
Also known as the yard-long cucumber or snake melon, this veggie harbors a secret identity: Botanically, it’s classified as a melon. (Cut into it and the fragrance will give it away.). This heirloom traces back to 15th century Armenia. Immigrants carried seeds into Italy, where the Armenian cucumber became prized for use in fresh, peasant-type salads featuring homegrown produce and herbs. By 1865, the Armenian cucumber had made it to America, where it earned a following as a novelty vegetable grown for county fair entries. Modern growers prize it as a truly burpless cucumber—which makes sense, since it’s not really a cucumber at all!
Article written by Julie Martens Forney.